Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Solving Unemployment, or, "The Value of Babysitting"

Here in Hawaii, where I'm basking in the delicious warmth of a winter working vacation, hundreds of nurses and others were confronted with the Yuletide news that they were losing their jobs. It may be paradise, but when you get your layoff notice on Christmas eve--part of the thousand-person cuts that two bankrupt hospital closures are forcing--it's tough to look forward to the New Year.

The nation still suffers from high unemployment (8.6% overall; California 11.3% according to latest DOL stats) and with weary job-seekers running out of government payments despite extensions, many settle for lesser positions or leave the job market entirely. Well, I've got a suggestion: babysitting.

Babysitting has skyrocketed in value over the years, more than any position I can think of.  Admitting my age, I'll tell you that I earned 50 cents per hour in high school babysitting, and it didn't matter how many kids there were in the family.

Now the going rate is $15 per hour, at least, and parents pay more per child.  In many areas, $20 an hour is de rigeur. In New York City, it's more like $25 per hour.  Since I was a kid, the amount of annual income considered a good living has escalated about five times over.  In that same time, the wage of babysitters has increased thirty-fold.

Many people who spent big bucks on a college education may think themselves above this plebeian occupation. You don't need academic skills to soothe a crying baby, and the status of babysitting isn't up there with professors or physicians.  Still, if you're looking for something to sustain you, would you turn down work that pays $15 an hour? You don't even need to go to barista school.

Babysitting does have its qualifications, and these would probably exclude a lot of people.  You need the patience of a saint, a tolerance for bodily excretions, incredible flexibility both in planning and posing, and clever, if not devious psychological skills. It helps if you can stand to read Goodnight Moon sixteen times over (Adam Mansback's Go the F--k to Sleep is generally not permissible).

On my first non-family babysitting job, the two-year-old, who was supposed to be sleeping so I could do my homework, got repetitive projectile stomach flu. This was before cell phones. I immediately decided to scuttle babysitting and get a job using the shorthand class I was taking (anyone remember when girls learned Gregg shorthand in school?).  My ability to take dictation at 120 words per minute earned me $1.65 an hour.

My point is that every mom I know grouses about the lack of babysitters, despite their willingness to pay so well.  So, if you're up for a little down time, as in crawling around on the floor, or enjoy listening to happy tunes on the road chauffeuring children to lessons and tutors, there's likely an opportunity for you.  And if my observations about salaries hold, and kids keep doing what they do, it's sure to be a growth industry.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Searching for Bright Light on Chanukah in Hawaii

In the Northwest, it's common to hear complaints at this time of year about SAD. That's not only the emotion spurred by the lack of winter sunlight, but an actual psychological malady, Seasonal Affective Disorder, where depression interferes with sleep, performance and energy.

Those who work indoors in Seattle drive to their 8 am jobs in the dark and emerge at 5 to the same nighttime.  No wonder sun-simulators are so popular. I've got a light-box on my desk.

My search for bright light was happily rewarded this year when my husband and I were able to take a working-vacation to Hawaii, where the winter sunrise is at 7 and night comes at 6:30. Those extra 2 1/2 hours of sun make a huge difference.  So does aqua surf and temperatures around the clock between 70 and 80 degrees.

But seeking light has a deeper meaning tonight as the 8-day Jewish holiday of Chanuka begins.  Just as the winter equinox closes in, we begin an expansive celebration of light, specifically the menorah, which was a 7-flame oil candelabra that illuminated the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

Yes, the "chanukiah," the candle holder for the holiday, has eight branches, one for each day of the holiday, plus a separate holder for the "helper" or shamus, that lights the others.  But the eight days of the holiday recall the miraculous amount of time that a small pot of undefiled oil kept the menorah going before new oil could arrive, once the Temple was re-dedicated, after banishing Greek gods and culture. The Temple having its special continuous light was so crucial that the menorah's ongoing glow is central to the holiday--and is the ultimate symbol of God's presence. It is because of this that the menorah is the emblem of the State of Israel.

But God's "enlightenment" is something we seek throughout the year.  Jews conclude our most central thrice-daily prayer by asking God to "bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of your countenance, for with the light of your countenance you gave us, our God, the Torah of life, and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life and peace."

That always strikes me--God gave us everything good that's non-material with the light of His countenance. Not with his words, though that's how He created the world. Not with his thinking, or waving some figurative arm, or sending some angel.  Not even by the look on His countenance--no, there's something special about light, in Hebrew, "ohr."

In the first Holy Temple, the seven-light, six-branched gold menorah was in a shape God dictated to Moses in Exodus 25: 31-40, with almond and knob decorations, and the branches turned toward the middle. The windows of the Temple, it's said, were backward, in that the spiritual light came from within and radiated outward, as opposed to normal windows, which let outdoor sunshine in.

So it is tonight, when we ignite the first of our Chanuka lights, allowing the brightness to emanate from within our homes to overcome the SAD of these darkest days. It's considered a gift that God tilted the earth to create seasons, to let us move from the dark months into the light, beginning with Chanuka, when, using "chinuch," education (the root of the word "Chanuka"), we improve ourselves as each subsequent day brings greater and greater daylight.

I'm searching for bright light here in Hawaii, and we'll attend a public menorah-lighting with others who understand that the holiday represents the triumph of insight over ignorance, and independent dedication to true principles over the ubiquitous and convenient messages of our feel-good culture.

Today the weather in paradise is blustery and rainy, so I'll appreciate all the more the clear sunshine when it reappears, and bask in the brilliance of this message of illumination--both the kind that can give me a tan and the kind that lights up a winter's night and a seeking soul.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

College Education...and Hula

Just returned from an hour-long free hula lesson at a Waikiki shopping center to hear my Fave Radio Host interviewing Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University on the worthlessness of going to college. Here's a professor--ie guy who makes his living from a college Economic department--questioning states' subsidies of anthropology, sociology and psychology and presumably, his own discipline, too.  Fave Host agreed, asking why high school kids prefer institutions of higher learning to just plunging into the workworld and making money, when in the end, they do the same thing 4 years later with a mountain of debt.

 Answer: with the sheepskin, they at least get an interview. Without it, they're unemployed.

I happen to be a fan of college education. But I'm also one of those blessed with the kind of skills that allow me to succeed there (57% of college students are women).The anti-college argument is that for the many--perhaps majority--of the populace not so blessed, college becomes simply a hurdle to be jumped, and neither prepares students for a career nor adds to their becoming more "well-rounded" and thus higher-quality citizens.

Sounds logical, but there's no getting around that we can't go back to the 1940s and 50s, when a college education was the exception rather than the rule.  Nowadays, the extension of adolescence has made a baccalaureate the equivalent of the high school diploma, a symbol that the graduate has tenacity and can take a test and write a paper.  It assures that the student has taken certain courses, and within those, completed required assignments.  People who earn a college degree are more likely punctual, literate and comprehending. Too bad a high school diploma no longer guarantees such basics.

Fave Radio Host thinks the educational establishment ought to turn that around, fueled by an end to government subsidies.  But even if all the fed and state money funding colleges were to dry up, the academic-industrial complex would raise the funds to continue (likely happier for any elimination of competition).  Which would be just fine.

College seems to be more necessary than ever, as all sorts of careers increasingly erect gate-keeping barriers, adding educational requirements.  It's tough to get a job as a community college instructor nowadays without a Ph.D.  Why? Because professors, to perpetuate and justify their existence, funnel their students into graduate programs, creating a glut of Ph.D.s with nothing else to do. Colleges now choose from plenty of Ph.Ds eager for work, so the MA has become meaningless in most social sciences.

Why couldn't there be more apprenticeships and skills-based certificate programs?  You don't need four years of liberal arts to run a small business or repair pipes or make excellent beer. You just need to know how to do it.  Years ago, when earning a high school counselor credential, I was impressed by a program in southern California that trained teens in specific careers, like chef, hotel manager, office worker, computer programmer, car repairperson.  The kids got on-the-job experience by opening to the public or internships in real-life situations.  They were prepared to earn money and be professional, but truthfully, they'll never have the prestige of advanced academic degrees, something our culture venerates.  Honest, competent, dedicated work should be just as honored. But it's not.

I have a friend who makes her living helping college applicants get accepted to their preferred schools.  It's big business to prepare students for the SAT, to help them choose institutions, and then to create applications that put the teen in the best light.  A lot rests on attending the right college, including the self-esteem of high school kids, their parents and their counselors.  High schools rate their own successes on the number of grads who go on to college, boasting when figures are high.

There's no denying that half of all students are below average (okay--below median).  But politicians, Pres. Obama included, keep insisting that every student should have the opportunity to attend college, even if taxpayers have to subsidize it.  There's a certain American spirit in offering even those with lower IQ the chance to succeed via extra-hard work. But does pushing non-collegiate students toward college just set them up for failure?

Many matriculate, and many drop out. You could argue that the failure is destructive; it doesn't feel good, and it doesn't encourage dropouts into trying other pursuits. But at least on their Facebook pages, they can forevermore write in the name of a school, ("attended So-and-So") which, in most circles, confers a modicum of status for recognizing the importance of post-high school study.  This universal esteem for college not only bumps its desirability but feeds the academic-industrial complex.  College is now another entitlement, and like the rest of them, legislators can't easily yank it away and stay in office.

Which brings us to hula.  My lesson, with a group of about fifty mostly-Japanese classmates, was for me an hour of body workout, enlightenment, intense embarrassment and fun.  We learned a dance called "On the slopes of Mauna Kea," with Hawaiian words and even a context of Island life.  Imagine living where land boundaries are so close and imminent. Where ranches and paniolos and a frontier of sorts is replacing a culture without written language, whose religion centers on four main nature gods.  In just an hour, I learned many movements and a unique way of relating to words and music.

I have to say, that free class was as useful as many of the courses I took in college, at great expense and with significantly more angst attached.  It wasn't rocket science, of course, and for the rocket scientists in our midst, college will always be a necessity.  But for the rest of us, perhaps we can adjust our attitudes about the need for taxpayers to fund non-technical learning, and grant a little more prestige to the wisdom that is freely and generously available all around us.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pearl Harbor Parade...Surprising

Our first day of our Hawaiian paradise working vacation happened to be Pearl Harbor Day, the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Honolulu bay that housed the major military protection for the United States on the cusp of World War II.

So, true to custom, Honolulans threw a parade.

Several times a month, streets are cordoned off and marching bands, truck-floats and civic groups prance down Kalakaua Street.  It's a clever way to entertain tourists in Waikiki, as well as gain the business of the many high school and college bands happy to fly to paradise to participate.  Last night, the Pearl Harbor lineup included bands from Virginia, Maine, Washington state, Indiana and California--as well as a Canadian troupe of marching bagpipers.

An hour before the parade, spectators waited curbside, some with folding chairs.  A half-clothed, long-haired very tanned guy got applause blowing a conch shell, the traditional Hawaiian blast (that, for the Jews reading this, caused my husband to respond, "Ta-keee-AH!")  And finally, we could hear the first marching band, playing "God Bless America," closer and louder.

The surprise? That the parade, naturally headed by the Colors, aroused such palpable patriotism.  The crowd immediately jumped to its feet, applauding our flag, audible appreciation that increased as the Corvette Club slowly carried about 25 Pearl Harbor vets in their decorated convertibles.  Each elderly soldier, and you know they had to be at least 90 years old, was loudly and separately applauded.  When military units or Young Marines filed by, they received similar cheers.  The holiday-lit firetrucks and police also earned energetic clapping, with spectators standing to show their respect and enthusiasm.

It's true that Oahu hosts more than one military base, and that the presence of the armed services is deeply entrenched with the development of the island.  It's true that the attack on Pearl Harbor--an event one would think would be somberly remembered as a moment of weakness for our nation--has become a major tourist draw, with the memorial perhaps the most-visited site for groups (as well as a significant money-maker for the National Parks Service).  Still, I expected that the parade would be a few regiments, a couple marching bands, and lots of cars carrying local politicians.

Yet it was much different. The air was festive, and at least half of the parade participants were Polynesian or represented ethnic groups.  The bands and flag-twirlers from around the country, and many Samoan-tattooed, sarong'd marchers, made this a grander celebration.  The strange combo of military patriotism and local organizations conveyed a dual message: We were attacked but we survived, and retain our local dignity--combined with--We are the United States, and yet, we are something more, an amalgam of Island traditions that don't really melt into the pot.

And yet even the Polynesians and Samoans and Fiji Islanders who marched in this parade chose to salute our military and the elderly men riding in vintage Corvette convertibles.  As we awaited the parade, my history-loving husband regaled us with the circumstances that led to the surprise attack--including the pacts made after "The War to End all Wars" for nations never to lift swords again.  As a result of this, the major military powers at the time, Britain, France and the US, destroyed many of their warships. Japan, a country we in the US considered distant, was aggressive and seized Asian neighbors, including China. As war was assembling and commencing in Europe, the US had ceased selling oil to Japan that July, and considered the possibility of attack in the Pacific--but on forces in the Philippines, not Hawaii.  So, on a relaxed Sunday morning, the buzz of aircraft and submarine attacks caught our military by surprise, and resulted in the loss of 2,400.

The attack on Pearl Harbor and 9-11 have some eerie similarities.  Both were unexpected, and both used aircraft to cause the most devastation. The USS Arizona sank along with 1,177 aboard when bombed, finished by a single lucky strike down its smokestack.  In both cases, there were mounting signs of hostility--from Japan over the previous year, and from Muslim extremists via actual attacks on US targets, and a failed Trade Center attempt, over a period of years.

I can't fathom the mood on the cusp of World War II, but I clearly remember being shocked and puzzled about the 9-11 attacks--what had we done to deserve this? But the response of others was stronger: we must protect ourselves; we must react.

I think it's this show of strength that inspired a parade on the anniversary of so much loss. Spectators proudly sang along with marching bands' "God Bless America" and "This is My Country." They rose and applauded and hooted approval when uniformed warriors stepped by.  Seventy years may have passed, but we are not defeated, and in fact, still lead the world.  President Franklin Roosevelt dubbed Dec. 7, 1941 "a day which will live in infamy," but amid cheers of parade-goers, it was not infamy or loss that lived on, but the valor and perseverence of the national heroes that prevailed .

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Arriving in Paradise on the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

Some of us are searching for bright light in the midst of a frigid almost-winter.  I say 'almost' as the solstice that officially starts the dark months is yet two weeks away, though the La Nina conditions that enveloped Seattle haven't gotten the memo.  Yesterday morning was 31 degrees.  Today, however, Day 1 in Honolulu (aka paradise) it's about the same time of morning and about 80 balmy, luscious, sunny degrees.

We're on a nice, long working vacay, one where we're apparently being stalked by President Obama in a few days, though he has yet to call for a tete-a-tete.

There are many things to recommend the Aloha State, but sometimes you've got to wonder if the aloha attitude is one of them.  We flew in at midnight, eager to jump in our rental car and settle in.  Thrilled to see there was no line at the car counter, we presented our reservation...and the easy-going clerk began his fulminations that for some reason lasted a half-hour, while he laboriously completed forms by hand.  This after our arranging it all online.

That slow, methodical, take-it-easy happy lumbering shows up a lot, sometimes for the good.  We arrived famished and so went to the ubiquitous ABC Store near our accommodations in Waikiki.  In case you have yet to enjoy a Hawaiian vacation, anyone who's cruised Waikiki knows this chain is better called the "every 50 feet store" because that's how far between them.  They're pretty much identical, with the same excellent selection of tourist souvenirs, travel necessities, and foods.  Waikiki may be sunny but it's definitely not a "food desert," as every ABC store stocks fruits and veggies and peanut butter and bread along with fifty kinds of suntan lotion.

So we grabbed a few high-priced comestibles and milk, and as we're checking out, the clerk, dressed in a muu muu and looking the stereotype of the Hawaiian auntie, plumeria jauntily poked behind one ear, takes a look at my husband and then me: "She your girlfrien'?" Yeah..."Can I call you Mikey?"  Yeah...funny, friendly, silly...aloha.

Casual, informal, assuming, sometimes slightly nervy...can't wait to spend some time exploring the concept.  I have a friend here in Honolulu who says locals can get pretty uppity if you're not one of them. She grew up here and has to start talking pidgin to get respect sometimes.  It's not polite to discuss, but she reports a strange kind of suspicion for "haoles," Caucasians, even for the kanamina, the ones who grew up here.

A different culture, here in paradise, and yet, it's the good old USA, and today, the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, is cause for reflection and remembrance, including a grand parade down the main drag of Waikiki, with marching bands from across the nation. Special celebrations at the memorial through tomorrow, and I hope we'll be able to go.  It's all part of this very separate feeling, thousands of miles isolated in the middle of the Pacific, vulnerable yet completely connected.  A separate culture, and yet, on the plane here I sat next to a young soldier, on his way to his newly assigned base on Oahu, all the way from the center of North America.  This juxtaposition between American identity and multi-national, Polynesian exotica makes this a fabulous place to watch and learn...and remember the sacrifices seventy years ago that were a result of its very location in the middle of the sea.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sex Addiction vs. the Virgin Mary's Belt: If you doubt that men and women are really different...

The other day my Fave Radio Host spent an hour talking about sex addiction, the cover story of Newsweek Magazine, and the subject of a movie he had to watch tonight called "Shame."  As callers spoke about the slippery slope from internet porn to action, I listened  at home while reading the newspaper--a story in the New York Times headlined "In Russian Chill, Waiting for Hours for a Touch of the Holy."  Horrible puns aside, I was struck by the accompanying photo, captioned "Day and night, tens of thousands of Russians have been lining up outside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for a glimpse of a religious relic."  The picture showed a grand Russian cathedral, illuminated in the night, behind a crowd bundled up against the cold.  The crowd was comprised entirely of women.

All this reminded me that men's natural inclination is to the physical, while women's is to the spiritual.

On the radio show, Fave Host reported statistics that 90% of those treated for sex addiction are men.  In contrast, pilgrims viewing the Virgin Mary's belt on display in Moscow are overwhelmingly female, not only because the belt is said to help with fertility (along with all other ailments), but because women tend to have more of a spiritual affinity. A 2009 Pew poll found women in the US more religious than men on all of the six measures they queried, including certainty in belief about God, daily prayer, saying religion is important in their lives, and church attendance.  Of these, prayer is likely the best indicator, since it provides no public recognition; while 49% of men say they pray at least daily, 66% of women do.

I learned that the Cincture of the Virgin Mary is a camel's hair belt said to have been worn by Mary when she died. She soon disappeared but then re-appeared to Thomas, to whom she gave the belt.  It's been hiding out in a Greek monastery where women are forbidden, until its present tour of several Russian cities.  The Cincture attracted two million Russian faithful even before its current, last stop in Moscow--where 280,000 mostly-women per day wait an average of 24 hours outside in bitter cold to touch its glass encasement.

This, of course, is probably of far less interest--at least to men--than sex addiction, which is being considered for inclusion in the new revision of the psychological disorders bible, the DSM V.  Sex addiction is likely to be defined as a driving requirement for sex of any type that interferes with everyday activities like work.  A Time Magazine article on the topic earlier this year described programs to treat the problem, which, it noted, is poorly understood.  It suggested that physical urges like eating and sex are usually treated in a 12-Step, AA-like process, which is difficult since these natural functions, unlike drugs, cannot be completely eliminated.  I find this interesting, because it is possible to live without drugs and also without sex, but not without food...but in any case, the overwhelming majority of patients for such treatment are male.

The difference between men and women is recognized in Jewish law, where women are excused from time-bound commandments, not only because they're busy nursing or caring for children.  Tradition suggests that women, being more inherently spiritual (after all, women, like God, create life) have less need than men for connection to religion. Among "connectors" are prayer (where men are required for the prayer quorum of 10) and wearing phylacteries, physical reminders to dedicate mind and strength to godly purposes.  In traditional Judaism, synagogue service leadership goes to men not because they're superior, but actually the opposite--they are inferior in their natural religious inclination, and the camaraderie of "shul" encourages their participation.  In egalitarian synagogues, often women dominate the organization as well as its leadership.

Tonight my husband saw "Shame," the Michael Fassbender, Carrie Mulligan graphic movie about sex addiction, and I was careful to stay out of ear-shot of the room where he screened it.  I don't want those kinds of images in my mind, like many women I know.  I focused instead on the stage production we saw together tonight beforehand--Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.  I much prefer a colorful musical with the ending--the same one religion offers, actually--of "happily ever after."

Monday, November 28, 2011

Wife of a Stereophile...on Cyber-Monday

While most people are snapping up cyber-Monday electronics to give their loved ones, we, too, are taking possession of a high-tech gift.  It may not be for the holiday, but there's a man in my living room right now, connecting thick cables to two new sentries sternly standing on either side of my hearth.  The man is my husband setting up his Chanuka, birthday and worked-hard-to-earn-it gifts, the culmination of a decade of longing and research, of comparison and pondering.  My husband is an audiophile, and he just got new speakers.

An audiophile cares deeply about the fidelity of music.  Classical music, in this case.

In the old days of vinyl records, the machine that used to play them was called the hi-fi, as in high fidelity.  Fidelity, or faithfulness of what one hears on a CD or record to the original sounds, is the Holy Grail, the great pursuit.  Audiophiles seek sound-quality perfection, the strings balanced with the bass just so, in the way some chefs are said to insist on the exacting flavors of a char-striped salmon fillet perched on a melange of sauteed vegetables. 

My husband adds a twist to his quest for the most realistic reproduction of concerts that may have occurred decades before, now "re-mastered" and released on CD--he's excruciatingly thrifty.  He cannot conscience spending unrequired money for a slight fillip of nuance, knowing full well that his Holy Grail speakers must exist somewhere at a reasonable price.  Hence, he has not actually acquired any stereo equipment in ten full years, an eon in tech advancement.  Throughout that time, he merely salivated at the rectangular forms posed like pin-ups in his monthly fix of Stereophile Magazine and catalogs from MusicDirect.  He looks lovingly and longingly at Bobinga enlargements, internet pop-ups magnifying the strange African wood used as the finish on certain loudspeakers.

He is in love with woofers, the non-canine, hairless devices that define the lower musical register. Tweeters are, to him, not Twitter-message writers but speaker components that deliver the upper range.  His mid-range--well it must be clear and precise.

And we're talking wattage. And connectors that join together the amplifier and CD player and speaker in an electrical snake-cord that looks like it could dock a cruise ship.  Some weekends his sound-hunger leads him to stereo stores, which line a two-block stretch in northerly Seattle.  Each has a living-room-like equipment-testing area to compare their wares.  My husband brings along his favorite CDs with the classical pieces that best show off specific capabilities of a sound system.  While the rest of us waste time on Hulu, he's surfing clandestinely between stereo sales sites.

Admittedly, he's incredibly self-disciplined, and only allows himself this guilty pleasure after writing several columns, reading books and newspapers, screening a new movie and writing its review.  But still, sometimes his last waking moment, as he slides into the dreamland of amplifiers, pre-amps, sub-woofers and of course the Big-Daddy of fidelity, speakers themselves, is filled with a few slurred words of adoration for a particular model.

His collection of classical CDs sit at the ready, shelf after shelf of jewel boxes arranged by composer.  He can tell you the key and opus number of any piece in the repertory, plus a bio of its creator.  When he listens, he is not in contemplative reverie, but prancing and singing, arms raised in active conducting.  It is now becoming known that as an adolescent, instead of carrying a wallet-ful of photos of family or girlfriends, his plastic pouches were lined with the stern faces of Brahms, Prokofiev, Elgar and Sibelius.

He has plotted and revised, considered and mulled until he finally found the proper combination of artistic quality and cyber-Monday bargain mentality. And so, tonight, while others anticipate their new big-screen TVs, he has been connecting and arranging, testing and listening... and glowing like a new father in a maternity ward.

I must admit, it gives me the delight of a parent watching a squealing child unwrap a cherished toy to see him finally complete the integration of machines and, as the drums of Sibelius pound with new-found bass, to see him so thrilled with shades of sounds.

It's been said that fine music is the interplay of spirituality and physicality, and if some pieces of wood and metal can enhance that for my husband, then we can both be in heaven.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Profanity: a Young Man's Poetry"?

Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier in "The Prince and the Showgirl"
I just came out of an advance screening of the film "My Week with Marilyn," touted as the true, 1956 encounter of a 23-year-old movie-set "gopher" (Eddie Redmayne) with "the most famous woman in the world," Marilyn Monroe.  Michelle Williams expertly plays the seductive, always-on-show actress who captivates all in her world while in London to film "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957), starring and directed by Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branaugh).

The film was well-crafted, mesmerizing, and troubling, and my husband (who loved it) and I were discussing it as we walked into the elevator to the mall parking.  Inside, a very tall, young black man with long dreadlocks was talking loudly to two others; engaged in our conversation, we didn't really catch what he was saying.  As he left the elevator, he turned to all who remained and announced, "Sorry you all had to hear that, but hey, profanity is a young man's poetry!"

I was as stunned by his remark as by the tawdry, sad life of Marilyn Monroe.  He'd apparently been ranting in foul language among maybe 10 people enclosed in our confined space.  Profanity as poetry?

Then I came home and found in my email a newsletter from my friend and teacher Rabbi Daniel Lapin, describing the impact of degrading influences in our environments.  His great-uncle, the revered teacher Rabbi Elya Lopian, to whose North-Eastern England talmudical college he and thousands of other Torah students flocked, was asked to give permission for one of the boys to go home to attend a wedding.  Reb Elya asked if there might be under-dressed nubile guests in attendance.

The young man assured his teacher that he felt no temptation and would be unaffected if there were.  Reb Elya gave his consent but insisted the student speak to a particular person before leaving, and handed him a phone number.

Turned out that the required call was to a doctor, which the befuddled student thought must've been a mistake.  Rabbi Lapin related Reb Elya's explanation: " I am nearly eighty years old and blind in one eye, yet I am powerfully affected by the sight of women in scanty dress. Since you, a healthy young man, assure me that you are not, I know you must be suffering from a medical condition."

Rabbi Lapin's lesson: you're absorbing--and reacting to--influences in your environment whether you want to, or not.

Apparently my elevator-mate knew we might be offended by his tirade, but decided (for us) that we should re-define it as "poetry."  Once we accept it as "the new eloquence," our shock would disappear, perhaps replaced by approval.

Truth is, I've indeed been desensitized to profanity by its ubiquity.  But I wish I weren't.
Rabbi Elya Lopian (1876-1970)

Lately, my husband has been fascinated by the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, and launches into excerpts at random times, read from Bartlett's Quotations and his print-outs of Lincoln's oratories.  Our 16th President's parents were illiterate; he received just four months of formal schooling.  He lived in such poverty that he received his first pair of shoes at age 11, a gift from his step-mother (his own mother died when he was 9).  And yet his phrasing is poetic:

"In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.  Other means may succeed; this could not fail.  The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just--a way if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless." (Conclusion to Abraham Lincoln's Second Annual Message, December 1, 1862.)

These aren't 50-cent words, in any sense.  But they are nobly-composed, spare but weighty.  The first book Abraham Lincoln owned, again, a gift from his step-mother, was the Holy Bible.  Interesting to compare the shapers of Lincoln's prose with what forms the "young man's poetry" of today.

Movies exert a huge chunk of media's influence, not only via films we choose to see, but in-your-face advertising for those we don't.  And dialogue over the past 30 years in scripts has slid in the direction of my elevator companion's "poetry."

Classic movies right up to the mid-60s refrained from profanity, managing to convey every emotion, including the frustration of most four-letter words, efficiently.  "My Week with Marilyn" is rated R, and includes a couple casual uses of the f-word; not enough to rile anyone, anymore.  Language is no big deal, which is why a string of expletives in an elevator earns no more than a flippant remark.

We can't put the toothpaste back in the tube (or the announcer back in The Tube, since TVs don't even have them anymore) to return to our more polite society.  But that's the problem for me--lack of concern for others' sensitivities in speech bleeds into a lack of concern for others' sensitivities in behavior, and worse, a basic lack of concern for others. We're so self-centric, managing our Facebook pages and Linked-In images, setting up our Spotify personal playlists and Google-plus circles that the rest of the world looks like a mere adjunct to me, me, me.  It's there as a platform for my own self-expression.  Other people become my audience, my responders, rather than recipients of my efforts, care and concern.

The other reason I was shaken by the notion of profanity as a young man's poetry is the very nature of those words.  You don't use profanity when you're delighted, enthusiastic or grateful. Instead, it expresses anger, frustration or at best, surprise.  If profanity is the medium of emotion for youth, they're really going through a tough time, and might benefit from some more lofty prose to improve their outlooks.

As the Civil War loomed, Abraham Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address (March 4, 1861):
"...we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Perhaps our natures will be bettered by more careful selection of the phrases that form our poetry, and by greater appreciation for the unspoken verses of the universe.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

My Days on Jury Duty

When we jurors started our deliberations, sequestered in our small room, the vote was 8 to 4 to convict, on both counts.

The process of massaging away the doubts of the four who were unsure in order to reach the unanimous verdict required in a criminal residential burglary case, capped my experience last week--one that was fascinating, emotional, and reassuring about the health of our justice system.

Like most who are summoned (and myself, years ago), I didn't want to serve.  I have a life, after all, and I don't like it disrupted.  I'd have to miss my daily workout, and the classes I take, and the work piled up.  What's worse, I was to start at 8 am the morning after the daughter of our dearest friends was to marry--two states away.  Serving on the jury would mean having to leave the wedding early to make the last plane out, arriving home after 1 am, and battling downtown traffic soon thereafter in rush hour.  It meant the prospect of either awaiting assignment on a case imprisoned in a windowless room with hundreds of others, or worse, who-knows-how-long embroiled in endless testimony and courtroom back-and-forth.

They don't call it jury "duty" for nothin'.  Duty is something you know you should do, whether you want to, or not.

So, last Monday, after flying from LA (pulled from the wedding reception just as my son arose to perform some "schtick" for the crowd) and finally retiring to my bed at 3 am the night before, I showed up at King County Courthouse, endured a long line, a metal-detector beep and wanding, and entered the jury assembly room, a large auditorium-esque space with rows of chairs aimed toward a podium.  At the rear was the restroom, a side area with a few vending machines and a glass-walled "quiet" area where cell phones were banned.

The room filled completely, and soon an employee, followed by a judge, welcomed and addressed the group, explaining that we'd be called to various courts for "voir dire," the jury selection process.  We watched a film describing what to expect; throughout was gracious acknowledgement of the sacrifice made by jurors to further the right to fair trial for citizens.

After not-too-long, the administrator called groups of about 45 names, instructing each to assemble on a particular floor for an individual judge's court.  I was assigned to the third floor, and the bailiff for our court, a sweet-faced younger woman with a melodious voice, gathered us into the courtroom for voir dire.  We each were handed a large laminated number, as if we were about to bid at some grand auction, and told to raise it whenever we spoke, for identification.  As I had been chosen for seat number 12, I got to sit in the cushy exec-chairs of the jury box rather than the spectators' benches.

The defendant, a young, slender brown-haired Caucasian man with a slight smirk, sat next to his female attorney, mid-30s with thick black eye-makeup, clad severely in all-gray.  At a perpendicular table sat the county prosecutor, a square, older woman with short gray bob who appeared all business but offered a soft, upturned inflection in her voice.

The voir dire questions directed to individual potential jurors ranged from clarification about the occupation listed on our brief biography forms to queries about our feelings as victims of home break-ins.  We were asked whether we believed a defendant should testify at his trial, and if we thought that fingerprints were incontrovertible evidence.  We were asked about any potential sources of bias, and whether we knew anyone involved in the case, including names read from a list of witnesses to be called to the stand.

I described how, about 18 years ago when we lived in California, our home was entered while we slept, a packed suitcase and my purse stolen, and with my key, the car from our driveway.  Did they catch the thief? No, but my car was found a week later, abandoned with only minimal damage.  I was asked why a defendant wouldn't testify at his own trial, answering that perhaps he was inarticulate and wouldn't represent himself well.

This questioning lasted about two hours, and finally the attorneys each dismissed seven of the 45 potential jurors under "peremptory" privileges, that is, without having to explain their choices.  As individuals left the room, the line in the stands moved up toward the jury box.  As number 12, since I was not dismissed, I was in.  Immediately, we raised our right hands to "swear or affirm" to try the case according to the law and evidence.  There was no bible or mention of God in any oath I heard, by the way.

Immediately, the prosecutor and defense attorneys laid out their cases.  The prosecutor described how the defendant first attempted to unhinge the secluded back door of the University district apartment of two grad students.  Though the police described screwdriver pry marks, and finding two removed hinges lying next to the door, (which had been installed backward with the hinges outside), the middle hinge was so corroded, it could not be removed.

A bedroom window, about a foot higher than some stairs along side it, did, however, provide an entry.  The female student victim described arriving home and opening the front door, noticing her computer gone from where she'd last used it in the living room.  In the bedroom, she spied the window she'd left slightly ajar slid wide, screen removed.  Her bed was amiss, and a glass of water once on a bedside stand spilled.

She realized the disturbance and began noticing that items were gone: two cameras, two trombones belonging to her music-major boyfriend, her expensive computer with hard-drives, jewelry, music equipment.  Unable to reach her boyfriend or family, she "called the cops."

The police fingerprint analyst determined that one of the prints was clear enough to form the basis for a search.  And, she found a match.

This was the entire basis of the case.  One clear fingerprint inside the apartment window, matched to the defendant.  We heard extensively from the police fingerprint expert, a grandmotherly woman whose 18 years in her position with the Department, 2,500 hours of training, and experience teaching others seemed to qualify her well.  She'd prepared a power point presentation to carefully detail the process she uses to compare prints, and point out the particulars that convinced her that a match was certain.

We heard extensive testimony about the stolen items, in which the victims described and justified their dollar values.  This was the boring part of the case for me, as I didn't know at the time that the prosecutor needed to ascertain a $5,000 loss in order to convict for "first degree" theft.  The defense lawyer didn't question any of it.

As I'd guessed from voir dire, the defendant was never asked to take the stand, and in fact nothing was said about him at all other than his name. The defense relied entirely on trying to plant a "reasonable doubt" in the jurors' minds--are we sure enough that this print really belongs to the defendant? After all, the fingerprint expert is "only human, and humans make mistakes."  Did we want on our consciences that we sent someone to prison based solely on a single fingerprint?  Why didn't the police use new bio-technologies for identifying; why wasn't there a security camera photo of the perpetrator, or stolen merchandise found in his possession?

"If you have even the slightest doubt," the prosecutor insisted, "you are bound by the law to acquit the defendant."

Her tactics worked on four of the jurors.  One said she didn't feel comfortable convicting when the "case was built on just one brick."  Another had fallen for the prosecutor's attempt to confuse, by implying that the evaluation was based on a tracing of the print by the analyst, rather than on the print itself (not the case).  Another had sympathy for the victim, since he had a friend who had faced trial (and was acquitted).

I was rather frustrated, because of course "the slightest doubt" is not the same as a "reasonable" doubt, but everyone in the room maintained respect and calm.  One juror took the lead:  "Let's establish first that this is indeed the fingerprint of the defendant."  That involved discussing the qualifications of the analyst, the details of the power point, the fact that the match was verified.

In measured, logical terms, several of the jurors explained why they thought this had to be the defendant's fingerprint--focusing on its nineteen unique similarities (disconnected ridges, combinations of shapes, distance and placement of oddities) that formed the basis of the match.  We'd heard testimony that in some cases, matches are made on far less--even two unique similarities.  When most of the jurors politely repeated "this is what convinced me..." the facts finally brought the doubters clarity.

Once it was established that the defendant's print was found inside the apartment, we turned to, "did he enter with intent to steal"?

Most amusing was when the "don't convict on one brick" juror tried to come up with alternate explanations for why the defendant's print was inside the window ledge. "Well, my husband does parkour, and goes around hanging off of different places..."  With great respect, we asked if he'd ever removed the screen of a stranger's bedroom in order to swing off its inner sill.

Several clever possible explanations later, we agreed there was no reasonable explanation for the defendant's print to be inside that apartment, which moved us into a lengthy discussion of the value of the items stolen.  Since the prosecutor had valued them at $5,600, and we had the option to convict "second degree" (for total stolen $750-$5,000), we spent time considering the figures in the testimony in the light of the expertise of various jurors.  The techies confirmed the big items' worth; a musician vouched for the trombones; we dickered about the jewelry.  In the end, the calculations still topped the $5,000 threshold.  Our vote was taken and "guilty" on the two counts declared.

In the courtroom, the clerk read the verdicts and then "polled the jurors," asking each if this was his personal verdict as well as the verdict of the jury.  With twelve double yeses, we were dismissed from service, told to wait in our room until the judge could address us.

We were allowed to ask questions, the most interesting answer revealing that the defendant had a record of a prior conviction on the same charges.  I wondered how many break-ins he might have done without detection or successful conviction, which would add to the importance of this verdict in sparing further victims.

We each received a nifty "Certificate of Recognition" and were offered the opportunity to chat with the attorneys.  I would have loved to do so, but my husband was awaiting me.

I was impressed with the care and seriousness of the justice process, and sincerity and earnestness of my fellow jurors.  They were a collection of people of all ages, most taking time from full-time, higher-level occupations, and seemingly well-educated.

When you look at the newspaper (my diversion during several recesses) the contrast between the treatment of citizens in the United States and other countries is stark. We are indeed fortunate to live in this greatest nation on God's green earth--and our justice system is perhaps the basis of its integrity and success.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Same Day, Three (Conflicting!) Diets

Today the three newspapers I get decided to duke it out about what you should eat. It's not the first time--conflicting diets, each purporting to pare you or spare you, are a near-daily feature in most publications, because, well, diets sell.

The Wall Street Journal addresses its comments today to the 20% of adults with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), suffering from bloating, gas and discomfort after meals.  A diet developed by Sue Shepherd, a dietitian in Victoria, Australia, bolstered by limited research published in UK journals, admonishes against consuming Fodmaps, if you want to resolve the issue.  Fodmaps, an acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols, all words that must now roll off the tongue before anything else rolls on, are foods we otherwise would consider the epitome of healthful, that can nastily miss absorption in the small intestine, moving on to indelicate results in the large.

Many fruits, like pears, watermelon and apricots; veggies that are not only cruciferous but seemingly beneficial, like mushrooms and garlic; cereals and carbs of most ilk; dairy products including the yogurt we'd formerly lauded as "probiotic;" beans (of course) including soy, and sweeteners including honey, are all verboten.  The Land of Milk and Honey is now only in your dreams.

Of course, those suffering from IBS would gladly forego wheat products (yes, those, too) and apples, asparagus and pasta if they could feel better.  And the program allows adherents to gradually add back restricted foods after six weeks, to determine tolerance.

chart from Wall St. Journal 11-8-11
Acid reflux and heartburn, one might logically deduce, could be related to IBS, but according to today's article in the New York Times, the suggested "strict two-week 'induction' diet with nothing below pH 5" for those ailments doesn't seem to mesh with its Fodmaps counterpart.  Dr. Jamie Koufman, whose new Dropping Acid: The Reflux Diet Cookbook & Cure aims to minimize the enzyme pepsin in both esophagus and stomach, banishes all fruit but melons and bananas, tomatoes, plus a host of reflux-generating non-acidic foods including chocolate, all dairy, cucumbers and alcohol.  It's the pH level she aims for most, however, noting a study where "19 of 20 patients improved on the low acid diet, and 3 became completely asymptomatic," simply by eliminating such culprits as diet sodas, barbecue sauce and strawberries.

But an article in my third newspaper of the day suggests that while you're fighting IBS and reflux, you might be opening yourself up to colds and flu.  USA Today touts Tonia Reinhard (Superfoods) and Joel Fuhrman, MD (Super Immunity)'s "top immunity boosters," most of which happen to be on the no-no lists of the other two diets.

Mushrooms are a major IBS-stimulating Fodmap, though they they "regularly stimulate the immune system by increasing the production and activity of white blood cells, which help you fight off infection," insists USA Today.

Onions are enemies for both Fodmaps and high-pH, but star as immunity-boosters, due to their "health-promoting flavonoid antioxidants such as quercetin, allicin and anthocyanins, which have anti-inflammatory effects that fight infection and bacteria."

Yogurt, too, must be eliminated for IBS and Fodmap, but pumps immunity with "active cultures which are a [sic] friendly bacteria that keep down the population of pathogens in the GI Tract."

And of course beans are the classic flatulencer, prohibited by both the low-acid and Fodmaps regimens yet lauded for their immunity protection:  "Rich in zinc, beans increase the production and aggressiveness of white blood cells fighting infection."

If it's not one thing, it's another.  As you may know, I'm working on a book with the message to trust your body's natural cues to eat when, what and how much.  It certainly seems the experts can't decide.  However, noting how your body reacts to what you consume probably can't hurt, and in the meantime, we can muse with amusement about how little the food gurus really know.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Going Home Again--to LA

Just about to jump on a plane from Seattle, my home for the last 15 years, back to Los Angeles, where I was born and raised.  Peculiar that much as we feel the same as ever, everyone and everything else is so different.

Los Angeles was a great place to grow up, and of course I took it for granted.  When the daughter of an army buddy of my dad's met me for the first time, she was awed that I came from the land of movie stars.  She was from Goshen, Indiana, a tiny town known for manufacturing motor homes (at that time, "trailers"), not far from Elkhart, Indiana, known for its violins.  When I visited her one time, I was the celebrity; California was the golden land where everyone was perpetually tan and beautiful, as seen in the news stories about Muscle Beach.  I was even asked to write a feature story for her high school newspaper about my fabled home.

In those days, a yellow-gray scum of smog hung over Los Angeles like a heavy blanket.  Gasoline was 19 cents per gallon, which, given the incomes then, wasn't so very cheap but fueled the car culture.  One of my best school chums moved away because the 5 freeway "took" her home.

We had guavas growing in our back yard, and avocados and lemons, and pink hydrangeas that bloomed all year long.  We had bird-of-paradise in our front yard, and a jacaranda tree that dropped lavender bells onto the grass every June.

The flora are probably still there, though the last time I drove by my childhood home, the owners had brought out its fake English styling by digging a mini-moat in the front yard with a bridge as part of the walkway.  The smog has lifted, one of the beneficial effects of environmentalism.  But the car culture has now become oppressive.

This is the LA I know now:  traffic.  What used to take me half an hour to drive now takes two.  When I worked downtown, in the early 80s, I used to play a game on my way westward on the Santa Monica freeway.  Even then, it moved sluggishly at 6 pm, a stop-and-go trudge.  But if I carefully managed my use of the accelerator on my manual-transmission Honda Civic, I could sometimes make the drive without having to press the brake.  Now, such a mind-occupier wouldn't be necessary.  The freeway stays at a stand-still for minutes at a time.  Merging onto it is a wrenching push against drivers who would sooner risk a ding than let you in.

Pico Boulevard was a magnificent thoroughfare that carried cars effortlessly from my west-side neighborhood all the way downtown.  I could walk to Pico Drug, not far from my home, and sit at the old-fashioned soda counter, looking at myself in the mirrored wall behind.  A cherry Coke, served in the classic inverted-pear-shaped glass, was 5 cents.  That's Coca-cola with maraschino cherry juice in it. A nickle.  I like to talk about it now, but I think I got two of them in my life.  Even then, I was taught that carbonated drinks were unhealthy.

Over the years, I watched the town change.  It became a magnet.  In the same way New York was the Big Apple, some started calling LA "The Big Orange."  Now, anyone who wants to enter show business has to go there.  And that superficiality, the emphasis on competing to "make it" in a field based as much on connections and appearance as talent, lends what was a family-centric place a different emphasis.  Both my parents were born in LA, and my dad recalled driving as a kid with his folks across open bean fields between downtown and the beach.  The Valley was orange groves, and in fact an uncle of mine became quite wealthy subdividing a swath of it.  There was room to play, room to expand.  But now, with the hopeful throngs, that competitive mentality has carried over, and the traffic symbolizes it all.

I'll be back there tomorrow, staying with my brother-in-law and his family. They never left the region, but bought a home just over the Ventura County border.  His commute to work is an hour each way, on a good day; two if it's rush hour.  When we moved from Santa Monica 15 years ago, we had to pay more for the house we bought here in the Northwest. Since then, our old home has quadrupled in value; the "more expensive" one we still live in has increased by maybe one-fourth.  This reflects the new urgency of LA; gotta be there, gotta get there, gotta elbow the competition out of the way.

I still have good friends and wonderful memories in LA.  The beaches are still deep and white, the palm trees line the Venice Boardwalk where Harry Perry still roller skates playing his electric guitar (now only allowing a photo if you buy his self-promoting t-shirt).  The weather still lures me, and Jewish life there is vibrant and abundant.

In fact, I look forward to dancing at the joyous Jewish wedding of a girl whose birth announcement I remember well.  Her dad, our rabbi, stood at the front of our beach-front synagogue and explained the name of his sixth daughter.  He'd named her something forever identified with the city where she will now, as a married woman, make her home:  Tamara, Hebrew for the palm tree, and I do hope she keeps her wonderful young head above her surroundings, like the palms' lofty view of the confusing scene below.

Friday, October 28, 2011

College Grads: No Jobs, so time to Occupy (Wall Street)

College is a lot of fun, peppered with iconoclastic activities that establish emerging adults in their own not-our-parents identities.  One of them is protesting the establishment, a time-honored college pastime now continuing with its second, or even third generation.

Oh yeah, matriculation also means studying, drinking, sororities and part-time jobs.  And finally, there's graduation.

Graduation with a baccalaureate in the past was soon followed by entrance into the work world, armed with the sheepskin guaranteeing at least an entry-level position in a company with prospects of advancement.  That BA enabled launching a creative new business, or heading out into traditional paths of marriage, parenthood and responsibilities.

But kids who graduated in the last three years, during the "economic crisis," have found a new post-college occupation: Wall Street, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles and Boston. Instead of finding jobs, these youths, at their physical peaks with revved up energy and ready-to-pounce pent-up ambitions, are largely stymied. A huge percentage must settle for limited-future positions beneath their capabilities, or can find no job at all.

Though college grads overall enjoy a low 4.2% unemployment rate (compared to 9.7% for high school grads), recent degree-holders face 10.7% unemployment.  What's worse, these kids often then endure the indignity of staying the child in Daddy's house--according to a Wall Street Journal piece today, "More than 14% of Americans between 25 and 34 (5.9 million in all) are living with their parents, up significantly from before the recession."

So they're "occupying" cities across America to express their frustration and ennui, their feeling gypped by a system that promised them a reward at the end of their academic persistence, or at least some path to pay back the staggering loans so many students or their folks took out to foot the tuitions tall as the Ivory Towers and Halls of Ivy they recently inhabited.

One such recent college grad, a dynamic, attractive young woman whose stellar academic achievements at a top-20 university should have allowed her an array of options felt lucky to beat out 200 others for a job working with kids at $13 per hour.

Many in her cohort have no employment at all.

Equally disheartening is the plight of her friend, another high-GPA grad from the same university, whose years of experience part-time in the financial field gave him no advantage for finding steady post-grad positions.  After months taking temp work, he finally landed a low-pay slot at a six-employee business; he's now considering law--though new attorneys too face poor employment prospects. I must clarify that college grads earnestly seeking careers don't have time to sit in urban plazas.  But their difficulties form the backdrop for a general malaise that fuels those who do.

If you look at Occupy Wall Street, which now like a spilled glass of milk has oozed out across the nation, you'll see one thing:  class envy.  Like early 1970s Boomers who "occupied" university campuses, they want the rich not so rich, and the poor made less so via the government taking some from the rich and giving it to them.  An "unofficial" website called Occupy Wall Street describes its goals as "fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future."

I'm not sure I completely understand those flowing prose, but here's what I get: Banks, "multinational corporations" and stock market investors conspired, creating self-serving "rules" that caused the US economy to collapse. The "richest 1% of people," (presumably banks, corporations and Wall Street?) colluded to create "an unfair global economy" that bars everyone but themselves from getting wealth.  Right?  Makes sense?

Interestingly, when my Fave Radio Host asked participants at Occupy Seattle their goals, several responded with long silence.  When asked by Host what they wanted to do to the rich, corporations and banks, protesters were at a loss--or said to tax the rich, spread the wealth.
Meanwhile, the demonstrators at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, the real Occupy Wall Street, seem to be having a party.  Well, until the cadre of volunteer chefs serving up " the usual menu of organic chicken and vegetables, spaghetti Bolognese, and roasted beet and sheep’s-milk-cheese salad" staged their own "'counter' revolution yesterday -- because they’re angry about working 18-hour days to provide food for 'professional homeless' people and ex-cons masquerading as protesters," according to the New York Post.

Apparently when word got out about the gourmet grub the elite Occupiers were enjoying for free, "vagrants" from other parks invaded--to the consternation of the more genteel demonstrators.  Disgruntled chefs showed their ire by refusing to serve food for two hours "to show they mean business," and dispensing only peanut butter sandwiches and chips for a time after the staff meeting where volunteers aired their grievances.

In addition, the "unwelcome guests" have created a climate of danger at Zuccotti. An understood "no snitch" rule kept much of the unpleasantries quiet, discovered the Post reporter, though "overall security at the park had deteriorated to the point where many frightened female protesters had abandoned the increasingly out-of-control occupation, security- team members said."

If you can't take the heat, get out of the Slow-Food kitchen.

What is this "movement" but a redeux of 70s-style liberal self-interest?  Its goals are vague platitudes.  It's easy to say the poor should be given some of the money earned by the rich.  The underlying politics of envy decrees that the limited "pie" of wealth should be sliced in equal pieces, and that those who "have more than they need" should provide their excess--which is implicitly ill-gained--to those who have little.  So why can't the volunteer chefs share their roasted beet-and-sheep's-milk cheese salads with their fellow unfortunates of Zuccotti Park?  Don't the homeless, who are surely as much victims of Wall Street and multi-national corporations as they, deserve some of the culinary wealth they're distributing?

No, the "derelicts" don't deserve the fancy comestibles, because the protesters sincerely believe that corporations are bad and bankers are hoarding wealth for their cronies, and so they're the ones entitled to the organic chicken and vegetables--while the freeloaders don't even care.  To earn gourmet fare, Occupiers hold the "we're the 99%" signs for hours, especially when news photographers happen by.  The others, the ones who just come for the efforts of professional chefs like Chris O'Donnell, 24, who "used to cook at Mario Bateli's restaurant Lupa" in the West Village, will now be directed to local soup kitchens.

I well remember the days of anti-Vietnam protests, when we or our boyfriends were subject to conscription into the military.  There's far greater urgency to protest when your very life may be on the line, torn from your personal plan for two years for a miserable Asian war.  You may recall that once the lottery removed most 19-year-olds from draft vulnerability, the protests (though not the war) petered out.

Occupy Wall Streeters don't like the economy, don't like that others have more than they do, and may be frustrated they can't easily address their own financial woes.  They also have drivers honking support and showing thumbs-up, plenty of interesting people to talk with, and free victuals worthy of any connoisseur.  Even with all these perks, the scene is winding down as cities tire of providing expensive police supervision and sanitation, not to mention the traffic and logistical headaches of hosting crowds of protesters and gawkers in congested areas.

On Tuesday, Oakland police and protesters battled over City Hall plaza, resulting in more than 100 arrests and one injury, perhaps the most visible of several cities' efforts to clear protesters from central locations, after days or weeks of easy-going tolerance.  The New York Times reported on police-protester conflicts in a handful of cities, including Chicago, where Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office was the site of demonstrators demanding the city drop charges against 300 arrested protesters.

The liberal stance of Occupy efforts was clear as The NY Times noted, "Still, the scenes of tear gas in the streets and provocative graffiti--including one spray-painted message reading 'Kill Pigs' in Oakland--has been seized on by some Republicans to try to make the protests a political liability for Democrats." 

While normal Americans watch the youthful outpourings with amusement, alarm or boredom, the Occupiers create their own embarrassing political statements, neither sacrificing anything personally, nor standing to gain much more than 30 forgettable seconds on the evening news.

Yes, the economy is frustrating, the camaraderie of demonstrating exhilarating, and the whole Occupy thing is cooling off with the weather (or freezing in the snow).  However, the flailing of new college grads unable to find appropriate employment remains, and unless that real problem is solved, Barack Obama and Democratic candidates will find youths' continued distress expressed not in plazas and parks, but on ballots across the land.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Protection against the Elements: Jewish holiday of Sukkot vs. Urban Outfitters catalog

Coming out of the first, intense days of the 8-day Jewish holiday of Sukkot, known to most as the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles (whatever those are), I glanced through the mail to find a catalog for Urban Outfitters, a clothes vendor whose styles I used to like.

In our holiday, Jews consume all our meals in an outdoor home-made temporary structure covered by non-growing vegetation, in our case cedar boughs cut from our forest-y back yard.  It was quite chilly and damp (though not raining, at least) for our gatherings, and our children, who returned from their studies in New York and Los Angeles as well as locally, shivered in their parkas, and snuggled in blankets around our table.  We drank steaming soup and continued through festive meals with friends, celebrating the "time of our rejoicing," a yearly harvest commemoration that emphasizes that all our dwellings--no
matter how fortified--are merely transitory and flimsy given the power of God.

It's true that by comparison with the heavy-duty messages of the season--increasing darkness, decay and cold reminding of our dependence--the styles in the Urban Outfitters catalog seem insignificant and inconsequential.  But the artsy, mountain-themed catalog, set in mossy glens, dense forests, and rural waterways among majestic peaks, (as well as the usual grubby alleys you'd expect from a company with "urban" in its name) was striking in its appreciation of rugged nature.

Lovely backdrops, silly, overpriced merchandise.  The style is to have nothing match, nothing you'd predict should be worn with anything else.  A long peach chiffon skirt with a bulky purple variegated mohair sweater and wood-grained platform heels where the platform's about four inches tall; the heel about eight.  A waif seated on a car trunk near a sylvan hillside wearing a gold cropped dolman-sleeved sweater, black and mauve wildly-printed jeggings, leopard platform lace-up heel-boots...and a blue dunce cap. Same doe-eyed girl standing on a verdant trail, in a see-through lace body suit, glimpse of a serape-stripe shirt beneath a denim, sweater-sleeved jacket. She's outdoors for this "late fall 2011" catalog pose, sans clothing on her lower half.  A two-page spread showing two young ladies on a large, ferry-like boat in an overcast lake (or perhaps Puget Sound), wearing mini-miniskirts, one so short it barely covers the essentials, above platform laced hiking boots.

The good news is that my daughter should no longer chide me for wearing socks with loafers; here it is in the Urban Outfitters catalog!  I don't pair this with miniskirts, however, which might demote me, fashion-wise.  I do feel liberated; floaty tops with weighty jackets and scruffy t-shirts!  Long skirts are back!  Could this mean I can take my slim-cut "mom jeans" out of the closet?  Hope so; I'm wearing them right now, though with a shirt long enough to cover the unsightly too-high pockets that cause my daughter to wince.

Hooray for capitalism; hooray for businesses who can make a profit based on customer response to pink-haired models with matching bags on cracked sidewalks, and close-ups of ingenues with white rats perched on their heads (both in this catalog)! I hope Urban Outfitters succeeds, because our economy benefits whenever a retailer prospers.

But the juxtaposition between the seriousness of a holiday that proves us vulnerable to the elements, and the positioning of models so unnaturally-clad in untamed nature is worth highlighting.  Every day, traditional Jews in their morning prayers thank God for "clothing the naked," our voluntary means of protection against cold and discomfort.  Humans in their nakedness don't have the innate insulation of fur or feather.  Rather, we're given the opportunity to choose how we are covered; we can observe our world and note the most appropriate garb, and beyond that use our creative abilities to fashion it.

For our wardrobes and the shelter of our homes and even Sukkot huts, we should be conscious and grateful.  Now, as the days grow shorter, we shouldn't take for granted our cozy clothes of whatever design, or the warming of hot chocolate by an indoor fireplace.

Post-script, as of Tuesday, Oct. 18:
Lovin' it: An Associated Press story today describes the umbrage of the Navajo (native-American) Nation at Urban Outfitters' usurping their trademarked name for a line of clothing including the "Navajo Hipster Panty" and a "Navajo" flask the article deemed "extremely insensitive." Outfitters' spokesman Ed Looram demurs, noting the name and Indian styles "have been cycling through fashion, fine art and design for the last few years." Members of other tribes share the Navajo's ire: Santee Sioux Nation member Sasha Houston Brown said Outfitters "trivialized and sexualized" the tribe's "life ways...for the sake of corporate profit."

I'm always fascinated by the passion about fashion.  I know, I know, we're talking minority-group pride versus corporate profits.  It's never about allegiance to a look or trend; it's about who's willing to pay how much for something to discard next year.  It's all ephemeral--which, as I think about it, dovetails nicely with the Sukkot message of the book we read this time of year, Kohellet (Ecclesiastes).  There's nothing new under the sun...even futility.  As one who wears my daughters' hand-me-ups from many years ago, (and who accepts my husband's famous shredded-and-ancient look), I really don't get the big money and seriousness generated by this industry.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs: So close to saying "God."

Aside from some pathetically silly guests on my Fave Talk Host's show today who rue his "concentration of wealth," nearly everyone in the tech-touched universe is saddened by the loss of Steve Jobs.

I certainly am.  The world needs brilliant, creative, iconoclastic but sensible and realistic entrepreneurs, and each of those adjectives certainly applied to Steve Jobs.  Even those of us who own PCs are really using Macs in some piece or form.  Even if we're too cheap to have bought a real iPod, our imitations all owe their success to it.  Even if we haven't downloaded iTunes (and most of us have), the idea of music organized and procured through our computers instead of in the physical world has transformed our listening.

And the guy was a deep thinker, viewing events and circumstances in a broader context.  This is especially clear when you read the address he gave to the 2005 graduating class at Stanford University.

In it, he tells three stories.  The first one explains how dropping out of Reed College allowed him the freedom to audit classes there he enjoyed, one of which--in calligraphy--a decade later influenced the typography available on all personal computers.  His point was that eschewing the conventional path turned out to have a major positive impact, but he only saw it years later, when he could "connect the dots" in retrospect.

Steve Jobs' second story describes when, at age 30, he got fired from the helm of the very company he'd founded, just a year after its release of the Macintosh computer.  It was a very public failure, but resulted in his later triumphant return to the company, the creation of Pixar films, and the bonus of meeting and marrying his wife.  His message in that story was to have confidence in pursuing what you love, despite obstacles.

And his last story described his initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.  Jolted by the doctor's advice to "settle his affairs" for imminent death, he focused on what truly mattered, which was again, doing what he loved.  Turns out he had an operable form of the disease, and he survived another six years.

In his commencement address, he says, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

I admire Steve Jobs' accomplishments and his passion--and wonder about his conclusion.  He implies that "your own inner voice," what he also calls "your heart and intuition" is an independent entity which, anthropomorphically, "already knows what you truly want to become." And he talks about events in his life as casual accidents that later, "connect" to make perfect sense and seem to have had a purpose.

Between Steve Jobs' very eloquent words I see him dancing around the concept of God.  What is your "heart" and "intuition"?  Is it just your taste? Stuff you enjoy?  Do events just "occur" or, as he implies, do they happen so that something later can come of them?  Were Steve Jobs' enormous talents and dynamic, energetic enthusiasm--his drive--random genetic facts, or abilities and attitudes he cultivated, pondered and, through what--God?--had the opportunity and circumstances to make wildly important and successful?

He also seems to rebel against convention, almost ironic since he worked so well with the business establishment.  He admonishes against "living with the result of other people's thinking," and of course, we're all living (happily) with the results of his.  "Don't be trapped by dogma," he warns, and while rigid adherence to unexamined instructions can surely stifle creativity, sometimes "dogma" is formed out of the collective wisdom and experience of people who have come before.  Such predecessors can be insightful, and they can be prescient, and they can suggest you break out of the mold.  And at the same time intimate that all their certainty still holds questions.  That's the wonderful gift of people like Steve Jobs.

Note: It has been said that Steve Jobs was a Buddhist, though sources about his religious activities and affiliation are scant other than a well-documented relationship decades ago with Zen master Kobun Chino, who early on was the "spiritual advisor" for his company.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Disconnect from Technology for an Hour Today

I saw on a friend's blog reference to a program that tries to address the problem of technology addiction by asking people to unplug for just an hour today, October 2.  Now, I, and all my Jewish friends, just emerged from a period of three whole days of Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashana, moving directly into the Sabbath) during which observant people refrain from using any electric or electronic devices.

Instead, we spent hours in synagogue, concentrating on the idea that God is in charge of everything, not us.  That as urgent as the buzzes and ringtones and symbols that flash on a screen seem--whether on my 24-inch desktop flat-screen or a three-inch phone display--they're really only ghosts and whispers of real life.

The organization that sponsors this campaign suggests in its excellent video that the problem is that attention to devices causes us to ignore the humanity around us.  That's definitely a problem, but a tech-obsessed teen might answer that what he's doing, gazing downward to text or return an email on his smartphone, is just as much communication as saying the words directly.  In fact, he might argue that because his device allows him to reach so many more people than can be in his immediate environment, it actually expands his connections, and gives him more closeness with people he'd otherwise ignore.

But the issue comes down to the degrading of the connections we have.  One voice in the Ohr Naava video says, "I used to phone my wife; now I just text her, using little words."  This reminds us that there's a continuum of quality in communication.  Best is physical presence, when you can read a person's body language, touch him, watch his facial expressions as he says something.  Physical proximity alone--even without directly speaking--allows its own type of sharing.  I feel so much better when I know my kids are safe at home in their beds, asleep; I have happy comfort when my husband's writing an article or listening to music at home, even when we're in separate rooms.

Technology isn't bad; in fact I consider it a second-best form of contact. I'm sure glad my daughter in New York has her cell phone, so I can be reassurred about her well-being at just about any time.  I loved Skyping with my son in LA, getting a virtual tour of his new apartment, commenting on its dated pink tile and the Pergo floor that attempts to simulate wood.  But it just made me eager to visit his abode for myself, because there's nothing quite like seeing him settled, clothes in the closet, refrigerator stocked, for myself.

But I signed up to turn off my phone and leave my computer for three hours today not because I'm personally umbilically-tied and need the cold-turkey experience, but because I support the idea of owning devices, rather than them owning us.

Here's a little secret:  When my husband asked me to marry him, with great passion, I might add, he tacked on one deal-breaker condition:  No TV in our home, ever.  Now, this was 26 years ago, when cell phones and laptops were not a factor, but TV was (and continues to be) ubiquitous and addictive.  I'd never spent much time with it--though I did adore Masterpiece Theater--so, being ga-ga over the man, I agreed.

As a result, I never saw The Cosby Show, Frasier or any other boob-tube icons of the late 80's or 90's.  I was a bit culturally illiterate, and tuned out of conversations centered around whatever TV show was current.  But I soon found out that just by reading about the shows in the newspaper, I was pretty well caught up on the big picture about the small screen.  The point:  Once you don't have the attraction of electronics, you focus your interests and attention on other things, usually in the real world.

Now, TV is very different from a Smartphone, but not so very different from the entertainment we glean on our computers.  Aside from Hulu now offering TV fare, and downloading movies on Netflix or its competitors, the most addictive laptop activity is net surfing.  My son has wasted hours on StumbleUpon, which suggests sites of potential interest based on previous choices.  There's always Pandora, where you can engross yourself in listening to new songs for hours.  And that most insidious time-leech, shopping.  My friend and I both spent many hours trying to find a rug for my living room.  And how about researching vacation rentals?  Shoes.  I have a close relative who I won't mention who shops for shoes online.  It's a guilty pleasure.

OK, while we're on it, how about Angry Birds?  Anyone spend time on that wisdom-enhancement?  FarmVille?  Or...even Granny's on Facebook for hours on end, especially with that compelling feed that they've now got on the right edge of the page.

Oh, you can fool yourself.  I read newspapers online, clicking from one story to the next.  I get the physical, ink-on-your-fingers newspaper, but then I want to send an article to someone (innocent enough) and, ooops, it's two hours down the drain.

That's what I mean by our computers owning us.  Our time, the most precious commodity, the irreplaceable stuff of our lives, slips away without our even being aware of it.  Procrastination, life-avoidance, no-pressure entertainment.  The problem is we do not choose to take control.

Unless we make a concerted, direct effort.  And decide to give sensory experiences, and direct contact with others priority over virtual contact.  If we can phone rather than text, do it.  If we can talk in person rather than phone, do it.  If we can engage with the outdoors rather than the indoors, do it.  There are new dangers in the world, for sure, but why subject ourselves to smacking into something solid, walking while texting?

So today I'll stroll through a local street fair with my husband, enjoying the exhibits and bands and families and sights--including salmon leaping upstream to spawn--with my cell phone off.  I've pledged three hours of no technology.  Not really that radical, but it's a statement.  One that bears repeating--and living--often.

Here's a link to the page I set up, as part of the campaign to turn off technology among participants for a total of a million hours.